Instructional Designer vs. Customer Success Manager: Who Knows Your Customers’ Better (and Does It Really Matter)? Image

Instructional Designer vs. Customer Success Manager: Who Knows Your Customers’ Better (and Does It Really Matter)?

Customer Success is paramount in driving product adoption. From a report, Gainsight found that 67% of respondents are using Digital Customer Success to effectively onboard and grow customer advocacy for their products. But how do you ensure that your customers not only get on board with your product but also leverage it to its full potential? 

The answer: Digital Customer Education (CE).  

Effective customer education empowers users to learn your platform quickly and efficiently, without interrupting their workflow. This translates to higher customer satisfaction, health scores, increased adoption rates, and ultimately, a thriving business. 

So who’s in charge?

In our field, the composition of Customer Education teams can vary wildly. Some CE teams are made up of Customer Success Managers (CSM) or other customer-facing team members, while others leverage Instructional Designers (IDs) to do the work. 

If you’re considering building your own Customer Education function, here’s a question for you to answer: Who do you think knows your customers better and what they need from an education standpoint? Your IDs or CSMs?

This may come off as provocative, but there’s a point! Read on…

Part 1: Transitioning to Digital Customer Education Isn’t Easy

In many startups and growing businesses, CSMs and other post-Sales team members are the first people to educate customers. Training is just part of their day-to-day. 

For example, a “day in the life” could include onboarding with a new customer, monthly product updates, or even ad hoc training when customers are struggling or have questions.  Most early CSMs have their own training deck that they update on the fly before each training session.

As CSMs take on more accounts, however, they no longer have the bandwidth to provide the personalized and thorough support each customer needs (especially the ones with a high ARR). That’s the moment when we begin seriously thinking about Digital Customer Education programs – what would the impact be and how do I build one?

As someone who’s led multiple Customer Education teams, I’ve learned that this transition is never easy.  Particularly when it comes to hiring a team.  

Who do you choose to build your educational material and program? Do we start with CSMs, or do we hire Instructional Designers or Learning Experience Designers?  Maybe both?

Customer Success Managers: Champions of the Customer Journey

CSMs are the front line, building relationships with customers and understanding their needs. As a result, they’re almost always the first trainers in your organization.  

They excel at:

  • Identifying customer pain points: CSMs are constantly interacting with customers, giving them valuable insights into common struggles and how to navigate them.
  • Tailoring content to specific needs: They can personalize learning experiences to address individual customer challenges.
  • Building customer empathy: CSMs understand the customer perspective, ensuring content resonates with their needs.

However, CSMs may lack:

  • Formal training in learning design: Their focus might be on customer relationships rather than instructional methods.
  • Time for content creation: Their primary responsibility is customer success, potentially leaving limited time for in-depth content development.

Lack of time and poorly performing content are often what lead business leaders to declare that it’s time for a Digital Customer Education program.

Instructional Designers: Masters of Learning Design

Instructional Designers (IDs) are a great choice to help Customer Success (CS) organizations build their content. Why? Because they bring expertise in crafting engaging and effective learning experiences that help customers achieve their intended outcomes. 

They excel at:

  • Understanding adult learning principles: IDs know how adults learn best, ensuring the content is clear, concise, and caters to different learning styles.
  • Developing structured learning journeys: They can create a well-defined learning path, taking users from beginner to mastery.
  • Building interactive elements: IDs can incorporate quizzes, activities, and simulations to enhance knowledge retention.

However, IDs may lack:

  • A deep understanding of the specific B2B SaaS product: In-depth product knowledge is essential for creating accurate and relevant learning materials.
  • Direct customer experience: They might not have first-hand experience with customer pain points and frustrations.  

When you’re transitioning from a CSM-led training program to building a Customer Education function,you want an ID at your side.  

Part 2: CSMs and IDs: Setting You Up for the Future of Digital Customer Education

I’ve been practicing Customer Education since 2015 when I joined the Gainsight team to help them build their program. Since that time, I’ve had the opportunity to learn how Customer Education works within many different kinds of companies.  

My original question  – ”Who knows your customers better?” – was, of course, meant to be of the “trick” variety. The answer is that you need both roles, but in different ways and at different times to affect scale.  

Let’s go through some examples of how we build a function over time.

Building a Scalable Digital Customer Education Function

The composition of your Customer Education function or team will depend on the size and stage of your company. The key is to move quickly first and begin to craft higher quality educational resources over time.  

Here’s how I tell companies at different stages of their digital customer education journey to think about team building: 

Early Start-Ups 

In the early stages, a CSM with an aptitude for creating learning content can champion customer education efforts. Content and courses don’t have to be perfect (the enemy of “done”), just helpful and on-point.

There are many resources for CSMs to learn the essentials of making good content, like The Accidental Instructional Designer by Cammy Bean and Design for How People Learn from Julie Dirksen are great primers. There are also podcasts, like The Customer Education Laboratory.

The key at this point is to start scaling the material you are already using – think videos, tutorials, training slides, etc. by uploading it to an LMS or Learning System so that people can consume your knowledge on-demand as they go through their busy days – instead of waiting on a busy CSM to show them the way.  

And, remember, it doesn’t have to be perfect!  You will have time to make better content as you grow! Start by using what you have and use an LMS’s measurement tools to identify areas for optimization.

Maturing Start-Ups / Growth Stage 

As you grow beyond your CSM team’s ability to keep up, consider dedicating a team member to take charge of the work.  For example, someone with passion for learning is great to team up with a contract Instructional Designer to develop better material.   

When budget allows, establish a Customer Education team – hiring a leader and other roles (IDs, Learning Experience Designers, etc.) to run the function.

There is an important caveat here.  It’s vital to make sure to integrate new team members into your organization.  If your education function becomes “siloed” or cut off from experts, the quality content you produce can be impacted.  Make an effort to provide time to work with the education team, or rotate CS team members into the education function.


Large companies will likely have a full-fledged Customer Education team with IDs, content creators, and trainers. Typically this team will have subject matter experts (SMEs) by the time they reach an Enterprise level.

Even at this level it’s important to ensure that education team members don’t get disconnected (or “siloed”). 

The key here is: “Right place, right time.”

Preparing for the Future of Digital Customer Education:

Building  a winning Digital Customer Education program is not a straight line. By leveraging the strengths of both CSMs and IDs, at the right time in your journey, you’ll create amazing educational materials that empower users, drive adoption, and ultimately lead to the long-term success of your customers.

In my opinion, I think that blending the insights of Customer Success Managers with the expertise of Instructional Designers is the perfect recipe for an effective CE program to address both sides of the coin — the customer and the learning. But, realistically, resource limitations, budget constraints and other factors may get in the way. 

Begin with the end in mind and adapt as you grow; the harmonious blend of CSM insights and ID expertise may not be immediate, but aiming for this synergy is your blueprint for customer education excellence.

Learn More About Gainsight Customer Education

Want to learn more about Gainsight Customer Education and how it can empower your team to deliver learning experiences that help your customers unlock your product’s value? Schedule a demo today.